UNESCO International Literacy Day — not to be confused with World Book Day, which entailed book tokens and cheap Roald Dahl paperbacks in primary school — is tomorrow, September 8. The theme for this year is “Literacy for a human-centred recovery: narrowing the digital divide”. With the cynicism in me that has built up over watching multiple companies and organizations try to make the pandemic relevant to their brand, I assumed this might have been another attempt to stay relevant. However, when I read UNESCO’s reason for this year’s theme and their overall mission statement for International Literacy Day, I quickly realised I was wrong to doubt the earnestness of UNESCO’s effort.
To set the background, UNESCO has been at the forefront of global literacy efforts since 1946, with International Literacy Day being celebrated since 1967. UNESCO views improving literacy levels as an intrinsic part of the right to education. They solidify it in their developing multiplier effect. Giving the opportunity to improve literacy skills throughout life empowers people and enables them to participate in the labour market, improving personal and family health and nutrition, reducing poverty, and expanding life opportunities. However, COVID-19 has only magnified the inequality of access to meaningful literacy learning opportunities. The pandemic has affected over 1.6 billion learners, with this being the most extended school closure of the century.
UNESCO highlights that the pandemic has been a struggle for all students; statistics showed that the average child had lost 54% of a year’s contact time by November 2020. In reaction to this, governments have tried to ensure the continuation of literacy learning through both distance and blended learning for formal, primary and higher education. This, however, has highlighted how non-literate young people and adults who face intersecting disadvantages have a high risk of being left behind.
Distance learning also fails those who fall into the persistent digital divide in terms of connectivity, infrastructure and ability to engage with technology. The rate of people who do not use the internet sits at half of the global population, with this percentage focused on the least developed countries and urban-rural disparities. It is estimated that only 7.7% of people in sub-Saharan Africa have a computer at home. There is also a persistent gender gap in literacy levels.
While reading this report, I listed all the aspects of education I could still participate in due to digital literacy. I could still attend college lectures, work remotely online, and order books from the library. Distance learning is something I found challenging, yet it was still something that I could participate in. With over half the world not accessing material through the internet, it is no wonder why the International Literacy Day theme for this year was centred around this concept. The pandemic has only amplified the centrality of literacy in people’s lives, work, and lifelong learning. Reading and writing are pivotal for accessing life-saving information and sustain livelihoods. This also extends into the digital age, with digital literacy crucial to engaging in an online workplace, society and learning system.
“In Europe, 43% of adults lack the basic digital skills required to participate in distance learning.”
In Europe, 43% of adults lack the basic digital skills required to participate in distance learning. The past two years have highlighted how digital skills need to be integrated into literacy skills. We need to provide learning opportunities to those who need digital literacy skills, inclusive access to technology-enabled literacy programmes, and good governance and partnerships for technology-enabled literacy. Distance learning can be an incredible development for education levels internationally, but digital literacy and overall literacy levels need to be established and taught first.
After what you have just read, the word celebration may seem oxymoronic. Internationally, we still have a long journey to ensuring that everyone has the right to literacy and education, with the pandemic making it more difficult to bridge this gap. International Literacy Day is an excellent opportunity to remind people of the importance of literacy and the importance of closing the considerable distance between global literacy levels. As students in third-level education, it can be easy to overlook the fundamental importance of literacy and how low literacy levels can prohibit access to further education.
UNESCO will be holding live conferences on topics such as ‘Enhancing national policy and systems for narrowing the digital divide’ on September 8 and 9. Further information on scheduling and panel members can be found on the UNESCO website. You can also follow the winner and runners-up of the UNESCO Literacy Award and read about their contributions.
If after reading this you are wondering how you can help, then here are some ideas: you can open a dialogue in your community about the importance of literacy, volunteer with an afterschool club, or even organize a book swap. It would be an easy act to donate money to charity, but we need to work as a society towards bridging the gap within global literacy levels, including digital literacy. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we need to fix these things together.
(This article was published in print on September 7th 2021)